Service was Al Haig’s mission. Courage was his defining characteristic. Patriotism was his motivating force.
Al and I met over forty years ago. I had been appointed Security Advisor to President Nixon, who had inherited a war that, by then, had divided the country. Nixon was committed to ending the war but also to America’s responsibility to the people who, in reliance on American promises, had cast their future with us.
A kind fate brought me together with Al Haig. Having just returned from combat service in Vietnam, he was serving as political science instructor at West Point. He had previously been on the staff of Secretary McNamara at the Pentagon. When he was appointed my military assistant, he had the rank of colonel. It was a rich background for advising the President how the options before him might affect the men and women in combat.
Later on, Al came to be described as a warrior-statesman. In those days, he was a warrior-monk. The White House is not known for its spacious offices. Al was sequestered in a tiny cell-like space working indefatigably, in a way ferociously, for what seemed like twenty-hour days as if he could vindicate, by his intensity, the comrades left behind on the battlefield and the people they were defending. The White House became his monastery. He inspired his colleagues by his dedication, laced by occasional flashes of humor for those who could penetrate Haig-speak. Al shared his country’s anguish. He knew also that confidence in America was essential to hold our alliances together. Like so many of his generation, he faced the challenge of how to relate the emotion of the moment to the obligations for the future. But unlike most others, fate had placed him on the front lines for resolving the dilemma.
To help his President in this effort was part of Al’s duty. He soon became indispensable. Appointed my deputy, the President and I relied on him for many missions—including a mission to China—requiring skill, discretion and dedication. He was at my side and at the table during the negotiations which ended the war on terms we considered honorable but which our domestic divisions later made it impossible to sustain.
Shortly afterwards, Al found himself on another battlefield. A President wounded by his own actions and domestic controversy asked him to serve as Chief of Staff in a disintegrating presidency. Al knew better than anyone what a Herculean assignment he was undertaking. His sense of duty gave him no choice. He had a reverence for the institution of the presidency. Turning down a Presidential request because of its difficulty or risk was incompatible with Al’s idea of service. Too, he—and may I say, I—had and have great respect for the achievements of President Nixon in extracting our country from an inherited war and laying the foundation for peace by such moves as opening to China, taking first steps towards restraining the nuclear arms race and bringing about interim agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria that have stood the test of time. At the end, Al was essential in helping this country through its gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.
Al went on to distinguishing service as NATO Commander and Secretary of State.
Al and I shared the bond of those who have served together in the trenches. The calendar says all this was some forty years ago; the heart makes it seem like yesterday.
Americans will remember Al with the special gratitude reserved for those who stood by the country in its hours of need. He leaves a big hole in the lives of his friends and on the parapets of our nation.